Tuesday, June 14, 2016

this will change human history

I attended a history professors conference once and repeatedly heard that "history is a story we tell about the past."  They were professionals who study history all the time and you can tell that making a distinction between what happened, what we think and remember of what happened and what we talk or write about what happened can be useful.  I mentioned Mlodinow's figure of 11 million bits of data from our senses to the brain per second.  Looking that number up in Google seems to reveal much disagreement about the number and probably exactly what is meant but it is clear that we can be vaguely or peripherally aware of much more than we can remember explicitly.

So, the claim that something changes human history, sometimes stated with "forever" added, can be about the actual past or about the comments and stories and articles and articulated memories.  At a more basic level, every passing moment changes the past by adding to it.  When you sit quietly deciding whether to have a cup of tea, you are about to affect the flow of time.  Will the next few minutes include you putting the kettle on or won't they?  If I sneak up to your window and photograph you with my iPad, will the picture show you at the stove or will you still be sitting there?

Very likely, you won't get too riled up about the question.  But the picture of you lighting the stove with the kettle in your other hand will be quite valuable in about 150 years.  Your descendants will pay a good price for a copy.  The Museum of 21st Century History will be interested in buying it at about the same time.  That museum hasn't been founded yet but it will be in a couple of decades.

What does or doesn't change human history depends on who is telling the story or writing the history.  You know that saying that history is the story of what happened as told by the winners of the war.  To some extent that is true.  Those who didn't win may have been killed or might be imprisoned and not in the mood to recount the events.  But again, over time, a witness or a scholar or a journalist or a historian might put together what evidence says about that time.

Like many other people of this period, I am a fan of science.  Whether it is electricity or antibiotics or probiotics or a better rice crop, it seems very clear that experiments and research can pay off very well, even though they involve lots of dashed hopes.  What I didn't realize for decades is that every experiment is itself a history and what story we tell ourselves about what happened matters very much.  If you don't think that stories matter and can change, you probably have not heard about the dominance of the rap/hiphop musical "Hamilton" at the Tonys last night.

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